G. B. Sammartini: Six Viennese Sonatas

Oinos Baroque Trio
Dynamic CDS7959

These six sonatas, recorded here for the first time, were collected from a variety of sources for use at the Viennese Hofkapelle. Compared to the violin music of his Italian contemporaries, this music by Sammartini is relatively technically undemanding, although it demonstrates a pleasantly lyrical character which makes it constantly engaging. The composer’s long life spans a period of rapid musical development from the Baroque to the Classical period, and his music embodies aspects of both these styles. The Oinos Baroque Trio provide us with persuasive premiere recordings of all six works, although occasionally I feel a little more passion in the playing might have brought the music more convincingly off the page. The fact that these sonatas found their way to Vienna is probably more due to the fact that Sammartini was working in Milan which was at the time under Habsburg rule than to any intention of the composer or any active decision by the musicians of the Viennese Hofkapelle, but that this music subsequently had an influence on the development of Classical music in Vienna is undeniable. This is particularly noticeable in the sonatas in which the Oinos Trio choose a fortepiano as continuo instrument.

D. James Ross


Mozart: Double Concertos

Capella Savaria, conducted by Nicholas McGegan
Hungaroton HCD 32866

Founded in 1981, Capella Savaria is the oldest Hungarian period instrument ensemble and boasts an impressive back-catalogue of authentic accounts of Baroque and classical music mainly on the Hungaroton label and mainly under their chief conductor Nicholas McGegan. There are many period-instrument performances on CD of the famous Sinfonia Concertante by Mozart, and this account stands out for its freshness and musicality, the two soloists particularly moulding the music tastefully and allowing it to breathe. If the ensemble playing is not quite of the highest order, another attractive feature of this CD are the pairings, the unfamiliar Concertone K190/186E for two violins and orchestra and a fragment for violin, piano and orchestra K Anh. 56/315f reconstructed by Robert D Levin. The Concertone is a charming piece dating from Mozart’s Salzburg period, and at times it seems poised to involve the principal oboe and cello in a larger concertante ensemble. Of the Concerto for Violin and Piano the musicologist Alfred Einstein opined that it was ‘one of the greatest losses in art that Mozart did not complete this work’, and indeed from the opening passage and subsequent writing for the large orchestra and the versatile concertante duo it is clear that the composer had set his sights very high. Mozart composed the work in Mannheim, and although the famous court orchestra (the celebrated ‘army of generals’) had recently departed, clearly their impressive musical standards had permeated the local musical scene – Mozart was writing for what was technically an orchestra of amateurs. Although he customarily wrote well for the piano, the same cannot always be said of his writing for solo violin, but in this work he writes brilliantly for both. More than once we hear pre-echoes of Mendelssohn’s imaginative concerto for violin and piano, and we should be grateful for the reconstructive skills of Robert Levin, which have allowed us to enjoy this lovely movement – albeit while yearning for the movements Mozart never completed.

D. James Ross


Jheronimus Vinders: Choral Works

Missa Myns liefkens bruyn ooghen; Missa Fors seulement; Salve regina; secular songs
Choir of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, conducted by David Skinner; Andrew Lawrence-King, psaltery and harp
101:17 (2 CDs in a single jewel case)
Inventa INV1012

Jheronimus Vinders: another fine Franco-Flemish composer who has been waiting in the wings for discovery, and now, thanks to Eric Jas who has edited his complete surviving works, and David Skinner and the Choir of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, who have recorded these three wonderful works, Vinders can begin to receive the recognition that is his due. All that is known about him biographically is that he was in Ghent during 1525-26. Stylistically his music sits between Josquin, for whom he composed the lament O more inevitabilis which is the only work by which he is currently known, and Jacob Clement. Qualitatively it is on a par with the best composers of that era.

This recording consists of two masses based on folksongs, plus illustrative settings of those songs, performed vocally and instrumentally, including the versions on which Vinders based his masses. These musical strands are all unpicked fascinatingly and lucidly by Eric Jas in the accompanying booklet. In particular, he explains the process by which it has been possible to affirm the attribution to Vinders of the Missa Myns liefkens bruyn ooghen despite its being anonymous in its source. The other mass is also attributed to Gombert but, despite some echoes of that master in its music – such as the almost obsessively thrummed repetitions – it is also most likely that a chronologically earlier ascription to Vinders is correct.

The music of both masses is intense, in minor mode, and tightly rather than thickly scored. Vinders sustains interest throughout all the movements with varied textures, striking melodies and vivid harmonies. Particularly notable are the beautiful sonority at “Tu solus Dominus” in the Gloria of Missa Myns liefkens and a breathtaking cadence on “Sabaoth” in the Sanctus, which is beautifully executed by the singers. In the Missa Fors seulement there is a sweeping opening to the Kyrie, the music of which is taken over wholesale for the Agnus. The album also contains an absolute peach of a Salve regina a5, one of three surviving settings by Vinders.

The singing by the Sidney Sussex choir in a reverberant acoustic is excellent, with attention to detail and clarity of individual parts. David Skinner’s tempi are judicious, and of considerable interest is his decision to take the Gloria slowly from “Qui tollis” almost right to the end of the movement. The instrumental pieces are played by Andrew Lawrence-King on the harp and the psaltery, an inspired choice for music of this period which suits the relevant pieces admirably. Vinders’ music is a wonderful discovery, and the greatest compliment one can pay this recording is to express a wish to hear much more of it.

Richard Turbet


Telemann: Twelve Fantasias for solo flute

Sami Junnonen
resonus RES10312

This current recording on a 24-carat Japanese muramatsu flute, must be sitting on a large pile of predecessors, by now possibly over 70? The other morning I was reading something from 2015, and listed were some 10 recordings, some on recorder, one arrangement for tuba! Despite the freshness, and newly minted recording status, some will already have landed upon favourite versions of these well-crafted works. Rachel Brown’s version of 2007 (Uppernote Recordings) was noteworthy, and came with a fine dissertation to boot! The impeccable dulcet tones of Claire Guimond’s version of these pieces on Analekta/Fleurs de Lys (FL 2 3080) have left their impressive mark, and this remains my absolute favourite, or at least a very high benchmark despite being from 1995.

As mentioned in this latter-mentioned recording, there’s an element of “Trompe l’oreille” (Trick of the Ear?) built into these works, which – though written for solo flute – give the impression of an echo, or second voice.

Sadly, some of these clever dynamics, and tricks of the ear, are swept aside for a more lesson-like approach as mere Solfeggi for competent flautists. The test here comes in No. 7 in D, with its Alla Francese, a most cleverly spun French ouverture, requiring the two-voice approach for effect! Oddly, I do often imagine a Japanese (hermit?) flautist reverberating through misty forests here!

The final work in G major is a mini tour de force of alternating movements, and if your ability falls short, then a bumpy ride can occur! With some push-me, pull-me turbulence… such are the clever virtuosic twists here, which some achieve better than others.

I have heard these works on flute, baroque flutes, recorder, and even bassoon, (though never tuba!) and can hear the registers and instruments that best suit, the bassoon was really rather good! Here, the lower and middle registers seem to sit comfortably, however, I found a slightly strident tone in the higher registers. That said, occasional flourishes made an impression.

I haven’t kept up with all the recordings in this expanding pile of approaches, yet this version must sit in the bottom 20 of perhaps almost 50+ ? Extrapolating from 2015, approximately ten (+ or -) a year!?, the figure could be as high as 90, and this new version – despite its expensive Japanese flute – will inevitably slip down the ratings! Benchmarks were set back in 1995!

David Bellinger


Uccellini: Violin Sonatas from Opp. 3-5

Noxwode, Conor Gricmanis violin/director
First Hand Records FHR125

This series of violin sonatas is fascinating for its contrasts of mood, flamboyantly rendered by the young violinist Conor Gricmanis. Each of an opening series of four is given an epithet in its title, suggestive of the spectrum of moods it should embrace. The series is introduced by “La Musica”, which as you might imagine, embraces them all. Subtle flicks and swirls and touches of portamento bring to life these relatively well-aired pieces, giving them a pinch of folky excitement without ever being made too “appliqué”. Coupled with episodes of lyricism, this makes for an imaginative journey through the 17th-century Italian avant-garde. The continuo make-up is varied between pieces and between sections to give real flavour to each of the desired moods: from the 16ft bass support in the opening providing an anchored grandeur, to delicate sections of transparently plucked theorbo. The occasional use of a tremulant stop on the organ creates mystery and wide space around, for example, the duet with Bojan Čičić (Gricmanis’ teacher).  “La Ebrea marinata” emerges from her morose “worse for wear” state into carefree dancing, lurching into triple and unexpected key changes, followed by a vaporous period of self-reflection, and a final heavy-footed exit. “La Luciminia contenta” is intimate and alluring, and undoubtedly content. “La Vittoria trionfante” is a singing contrast, but amongst such colourful company, perhaps Gricmanis could have allowed himself an articulation of the opening arpeggiated passages more suggestive of having succeeded in the field. As the disc progresses, we have “Shining Laura”, and even “The Lie”, which present further interpretive challenges! But these titles are intended to invite the performer to open up to new possibilities in performance, and this invitation is accepted in these performances. It is gratifying to hear a new player bringing freshness to a repertoire with which we might have felt familiar.

Stephen Cassidy


La Sorella mi fa fallare

[Music by] Marco Uccellini
Ensemble Ozio Regio
Seuletoile SE05

The booklet notes draw attention to the parallel creative firmament of science and music which characterised 17th-century Italy (with a long lead-up of course). This was the period of Galilei and a fascination with order, conceptual hierarchies, and exploration. The title of the disc is taken from an intriguing piece which embodies this preoccupation with formalism. The piece is based on the sol fa “translation” of its title into a melody – la sol re la mi fa fa la re – which repeats a good number of times throughout.

The Uccellini programme is punctuated with organ pieces by Pasquini and harpsichord solos by Battifieri, in a very well-conceived sequence. The opening organ toccata makes for a dramatic entry, with an enticing procession of promised cadences being wrong-footed by the pedal, so to speak. The expectation generated leads into a grand ensemble with bright trombone and a light and flighty cornett, with violin and cello. The natural balance between the parts is a remarkable piece of recording engineering, giving clarity and a realistic presence to all the parts. In one or two other pieces the trope of placing the cornett in its own acoustic, away from the strings, has proved tempting. Maybe this is intentional, but in a real performance, the physical proximity of the players creates the musical conversation. An acoustic separation is therefore subliminally interpreted as a lack of that conversation, which is of course very unfair to this marvellous playing. The cornett and violin tightly follow each other, and yet at the same time each has its own characteristics, which gives real interest. This is exemplified in the aforementioned “La Sorella…”, which is then followed by a cleverly chosen harpsichord piece by Battifieri, which has a remarkably similar mode and mood.

The instrumentation is varied in sympathy with each piece. The cool abstract sound of the tenor recorder in the fourth piece floats in its own circle of the Galilean heavens, looking down on the terrestrial strings. The performances overall are relatively gentle and abstract. The violin narratives are told in the flicker of a fireside rather than under the hard light of a stage. With appropriate symmetry, the programme ends with the full ensemble, rounding off this excellent performance.

Stephen Cassidy


Surprising Royer – Orchestral Suites

Les Talens Lyriques, directed by Christophe Rousset
Aparte AP298

It is not clear why it should be ‘surprising Royer’, Royer being Pancrace Royer (1703-1755). He was born of French parents in Turin, his father, an engineer, having been seconded by Louis XIV to assist the house of Savoy. The family returned to Paris while he was still a child. The connections with the royal family stood Royer in good stead; he became a teacher of the royal children, his links securing him his first opera commission, the tragédie Pyhrrus, composed to celebrate the birth of the Dauphin in 1729 and subsequently first performed at the Paris Opéra in 1730. That same year he was appointed maïtre de musique at the Opéra, where he oversaw the production of Rameau’s first opera, Hippolyte et Aricie (1733). Later Royer would become director of the famous Parisian concert society, Le Concert Spiritual and the composer of a virtuosic and highly successful book of keyboard works that included transcriptions from his own operas.

They number five works in addition to Pyhrrus and from them Christophe Rousset has chosen orchestral extracts, mostly dances, from four: Pyhrrus, the ballet-heroïque Le pouvoir de l’Amour (1743), Zaïde, reine de Grenade (1739), another ballet-heroïque and the acte de ballet Almasis (1748). The opening overture to Le pouvoir immediately reveals a composer not only thoroughly competent in contrapuntal technique but also one with an impressive command of orchestration and orchestral colour. If Royer’s dances overall lack the supreme distinction of those of his contemporary Rameau – in particular we find only rare glimpses of the languid sensuality that is just one of many reasons for Rameau’s greatness as a dance composer – there are many that have thoroughly attractive qualities of their own. The two from a hunting scene in Zaïde that was apparently much applauded, an ‘Entrée des chasseurs’ and an ‘Air pour les chasseurs’ creating exciting evocations of the hunt, while some of the more extended dance movements are also particularly striking. Among these is a long and effective Chaconne from Le pouvoir that contrasts airy, diaphanous writing for the flute with more animated passages for the full orchestra. Another extended movement, an ‘Air tendrement’ again with restful trilling flutes and a counter melody featuring bassoons, is arguably the closest Royer comes to Rameau. And if you want irresistible verve, the two ‘Tambourins’ from Royer’s penultimate opera, the one-act Almasis fills the bill admirably.

To say that no one does this kind of music with the élan, the insight and the sensitivity that Christophe Rousset does has by now become virtually a cliché rather than an observation. Rhythms are sprung with refined grace, melodies shaped with elegance, but above all comes the feeling that dancers are never far removed from Rousset’s ‘mind’s eye’. Add to this superb orchestral playing by Les Talens Lyriques – just listen to the rich depth of the bass string section with its six cellos – and it becomes clear that this is a CD that needs no further endorsement from me or anyone else. If you have any kind of feeling for French baroque music you need to hear this. Post haste.

Brian Robins


Mozart: Piano Concertos

Academy of Ancient Music, Robert Levin, Bojan Čičić, Laurence Cummings

Many will doubtless recall that among the most exciting projects of the last decades of the 20th century was the recording of complete sets of the Mozart keyboard concertos undertaken by Malcolm Bilson (Archiv) and Robert Levin (L’Oiseau-Lyre). Employing instruments of the period and stylish ornamentation, both cycles were path-breaking in the manner in which they gave us the most historically informed ideas yet of how the piano concertos might have sounded to Mozart’s own audiences. The Bilson cycle was to all intents and purposes completed – though you had to go ‘off-piste’ to get the three very early concertos of K107 – but Levin’s came to a halt around the turn of the century after eight volumes. The death of Christopher Hogwood, the conductor of the series, in 2014 might have set the seal on determining that the cycle would remain incomplete. Now however comes the first of a series of five discs on the AAM’s own label that will complete Levin’s set by 2024.

It is something of an assortment of curiosities on which you will not even hear a note played on the fortepiano! Perhaps most curious of all is the concerto fragment that appears in the music notebook of Mozart’s sister Nannerl. The notebook is home to several of Mozart’s earliest efforts at composition (K1a, b and c) and the proposition made here (by Mozart scholar Cliff Eisen) is that the fragment was composed by Mozart and entered in the notebook by the children’s father Leopold. The orchestral passages are not notated but the music has been reconstructed by Robert Levin. It has a strangely familiar feel to it, which annoyingly I cannot put a name to at present, though the saucy folk-like tune could be that of any number of cheeky songs or comic arias. Like the three concertos of K107, it is played on a two-manual harpsichord built by Alan Gotto of Norwich after c.1770 Silbermann, an instrument that does in fact at times sound disconcertingly like a fortepiano (at least as recorded here).

The three concertos of K107 represent a small step in Mozart’s giant advancement of the keyboard concerto. Dating from 1771 or 72, they are not original works, but arrangements of the keyboard sonatas opus 5 of J C Bach, who had befriended the child Mozart during his London visit some six years earlier. Only the first, a charming work, has three movements, the others just two. All three betray the galant elegance of their original composer, as does the sentimental style of the set of variations that form the second movement of the G-major Concerto (No 2). Like all the music on the CD the concertos are played with an easy fluency and nimble, precise finger-work. There are, however, times when I felt that Levin might have allowed a little more affection into his playing, which does carry more than the odd hint of the dutiful.

For those that haven’t read the notes prior to listening to the disc, another surprise comes with the Piano Concerto No 5, K175 (1773), Mozart’s first original piano concerto, for it is played not on the piano (or fortepiano) but on the organ. Eisen’s argument for doing so is convincing. You’ll have to read the full note to find out why in detail, but in brief it hinges mainly on two facts. Mozart’s lost autograph titled the work ‘per il Clavicembalo’, at the time a generic term for keyboard instruments. Perhaps still more persuasively the keyboard part lacks the dynamic markings expected in music for piano, but not that for organ. Although not mentioned by Eisen the general character of the work might also suggest organ for the original solo instrument, for it is a grandiose D-major concerto with trumpets and timpani. To my mind, it works well enough in the outer movements but the lyrical central Andante (without the drums and trumpets, of course) sounds far more ‘pianistic’ and arouses doubts. I also have a question mark about the instrument used, the organ completed by George England in 1760 for Christ’s Chapel of Alleyn’s College of God’s Gift, Dulwich, and restored by William Drake in 2009. I’m no organ expert, but it doesn’t sound remotely like the Austrian organs of this period known to me. Levin’s playing of it is again remarkable for its easy facility, though there are hints of skating over some of the more florid passage work. Lastly, there’s an organ work that there’s no debate about, the final Church or Epistle Sonata, K336. The AAM gives Levin generally tidy support, although the ensemble playing of the strings is variable, the above-mentioned variations of K107/2 being an example of less than perfect ensemble. Overall the disc is an interesting addition to the cycle if not quite of the highest calibre.

Brian Robins


Byrd 1589: Songs of sundrie natures

Alamire, Fretwork, David Skinner
122:37 (2 CDs in a single case)
Inventa INV1011

Alamire and Fretwork continue their great work on behalf of Byrd, under the direction of David Skinner, by following up their complete recording of his Psalmes, sonets and songs of 1588 with this double album consisting of the Songs of sundrie natures 1589. In an important respect this new release is even more significant because it includes so many premiere recordings from this more neglected collection. For instance, of the Seven Penitential Psalms that begin the disc, only three have ever received commercial recordings. Just a few of the pieces have received repeated attention – such as the majestic consort anthem Christ rising again and the bucolic duet Who made thee Hob forsake the plough – but now we can revel in the likes of the first complete recording of the exquisite Wounded I am, the first commercial recording of what David in his note calls “this epic tale” From Citheron the warlike boy is fled and only the second recording of the sublime sacred song O Lord my God. The two carols for Christmas Day – From virgin’s womb and An earthly tree – have of late begun at last to receive appropriate attention on disc, performed with both their two sections intact and accompanied by viols. This is definitively the case here, and they also demonstrate the high quality of Alamire’s soloist Martha McLorinan; she is joined by the equally admirable Clare Wilkinson in Christ rising and Who made thee Hob mentioned above, and both mezzos also sing separate solo songs; Unlike the 1588 songs, many of which survive in pre-publication sources as consort songs which Byrd subsequently adapted as partsongs for publication, those in 1589 are almost all original partsongs; just three survive as consort songs in sources predating the print. Of these, I thought that love and When first by force are performed as in the print, but See those sweet eyes is sung enchantingly by Clare Wilkinson in its original solo format. The violists of Fretwork provide excellent accompaniments whenever required, as do star lutenists, Jacob Heringman and Lynda Sayce, for the five stunning secular songs that are in three parts.

As in 1588, there is a wide variety of mood, illustrated well by the almost curt and flirtatious I thought that love had been a boy sitting next to the impassioned and emotional O dear life to words by Sir Philip Sidney; indeed, the teeming creativity that gushes from the ten works in the section of songs in five parts could stand as an epitome of the entire collection. Alamire and David respond sensitively to all of Byrd’s different musical perspectives. Indeed, this is a collection simply crammed full of delights, both spiritual and emotional, all the better for the listener with such a high proportion of the songs being in the main unfamiliar. The initial sequence of seven psalms in three parts might seem forbidding, but do as Byrd himself suggests, listen a few times, and even here in these ostensibly austere works many beauties emerge; earlier this Byrd Quatercentenary year I had the pleasure of attending a concert in Norwich given by the outstanding Marian Consort, during which they sang the dourly-texted Lord in thy wrath correct me not and its concluding bars radiated beauty, which beauty is conveyed equally well on this recording. The more luxuriant Unto the hills mine eyes I lift in six parts, with its own plodding text, possesses a Flemish quality reminding us of Byrd’s familiarity with the glorious works of Jacob Clement, “Clemens non Papa”. One could go on throughout the entire set – there is not a work among them all which is less than excellent, and which does not repay repeated listening.

The Sixteen have beaten Alamire to recording Byrd’s third and final collection of songs, the Psalmes, songs, and sonnets of 1611, but Alamire have provisional plans for a possible celebration of another Byrd anniversary in 2024 which, if it comes to fruition, would be just as exciting as all the foregoing. Meanwhile, it remains yet again to recommend without reservation the album under review, to compliment Alamire on making some hitherto hidden masterpieces by Byrd accessible to the worldwide public, and to congratulate Alamire, Fretwork, David and the soloists on a job superbly done. And let’s have a minute’s applause for William, who made it all possible.

Richard Turbet


Webern | Bach

Complete published strings quartets | The Art of Fugue
Richter Ensemble
Passacaille PAS1129

This CD offers a novel approach, interspersing Bach’s Art of Fugue with Webern’s string quartet movements. ‘You find everything in Bach: the development of cyclic forms, the conquest of the realm of tonality – the attempt of a summation of the highest order’, said Webern, and both composers recorded here display the exploration of the logic that canonic and fugal writing imposes.

The Richter Ensemble are joined by Paolo Zuccheri (Violone) and James Johnstone (harpsichord) for the Bach, which they play at A=415Hz and recorded in France in 2019. The Webern is played at A=432Hz and was also recorded in France, but in 2021. The shift in pitch between the Bach and Webern is perceptible, but oddly, not disturbing to me; and the grouping of The Art of Fugue numbers into simple fugues (Contrapuncti I-IV), stretto fugues (Contrapuncti V-VII), double and triple fugues (Contrapuncti VIII-XI) and mirror fugues (Contrapuncti XII-XIII, and finally XIV at the end) allow for coherent groups of increasing complexity to mirror the chronological development of Webern’s Op. 5 (1909), the Six Bagatelles Op. 9 (1913) and the late Quartet Op. 28 (1937/8).

So not every possible piece from the later version of The Art of Fugue is included, and the liner notes make it clear that it is the juxtaposition of the very different composers that is at the heart of the CD’s purpose.

I found this refreshing, and illuminating – up to a point. I am no expert in Webern, and I do not have scores of much of his music. But the well-recorded dynamic range suggests that the players are masters of this highly nuanced music, and the effects produced in terms of glissandi, pizzicato and exceptionally well-tuned intervals. For the Bach, the ensemble grows in grip and power when joined by the violone and harpsichord.

An oblique observation: most of the performances of The Art of Fugue opt for the clarity of one-to-a-part scoring as must have been standard in viol consort playing (and singing) until the second quarter of the 18th century at least. While it is most likely that Bach – if he ever thought of a live performance of the material we know as The Art of Fugue – would have used a keyboard for preference, this performance quarrying material that reflects most nearly the intellectual and disciplined focus of the composer’s life and work and the transmission of that legacy to the 20th century certainly has its place in that towering edifice of polyphonic complexity.

David Stancliffe